Beer drinking makes inroads in French-speaking Switzerland

Besides tasting, the Lausanne Beer Festival also offered live entertainment. Fête de la Bière Lausanne

A growing share of the Swiss beer-drinking market is being captured by small independent breweries, even in the traditional wine-producing heartland of western Switzerland. The growth of these microbreweries was apparent at the weekend at the fifth Lausanne Beer Festival.

This content was published on June 5, 2001 - 09:32

The "Fête de la Bière", held in the port of Ouchy, attracted several thousand beer lovers, who had the chance to sample scores of prize-winning beers.

Pride of place this year went to two of the best independent breweries in French-speaking Switzerland, the Lausanne-based Boxer brewery and the Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes (BFM), which is located in canton Jura. What links these and the other so-called craft beers available at the festival is the desire to challenge the palate.

"I can understand why people say they don't like beer when all they know is bland, mass-marketed lagers," says beer fanatic Laurent Mousson, editor of western Switzerland's leading beer-drinkers newsletter, le Courrier de l'Orge.

"There is a wealth of diversity. The best way of educating people is to get them to tackle new tastes, to get them used to bitterness. It's an acquired taste, but it soon becomes a pleasure - just like wine," Mousson explained while savouring a delicious oatmeal stout brewed especially for the festival.

Mousson says there is a beer-producing and beer-drinking tradition in French-speaking Switzerland, but it virtually died out as many small brewers were forced out of business by the industry. A virtual cartel controlled the beer market between the 1930s and the late 1980s.

The tradition, as Mousson explains, is now making a welcomed return.

"We have elderly people who remember the beers they drank when they were young and are rediscovering that taste," he says, before adding that "Beer is a part of their life and identity."

The Swiss beer market is dominated by two big brewing houses, Feldschlösschen-Hürlimann and Heineken, which have come under increasing pressure. Today, the average Swiss drinks 60 litres of beer every year, ten less than a decade ago.

But it is a different story for the microbreweries. BFM, which sells 200,000 bottles a year, has witnessed an annual growth of between 20 and 30 per cent.

Its complex but rewarding beers range from the pale "Salamandre", with its hints of coriander and orange peel, to the dark dried fruit-flavoured "Torpille".

These are uncompromising beers, full of character. Significantly, BFM's founder, Jérôme Rebetez, is a wine-maker by training, and, like a fine wine, his beers are to be savoured.

German-speaking Switzerland still has many family-run independent breweries. Their beers are more similar to the lager-style beers found in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic.

The brewers of French-speaking Switzerland look to top fermented beers of Belgium and Quebec for their inspiration.

Laurent Mousson says there is a "sacred union" between the people of western Switzerland, Wallonia and Quebec. They are not only French-speaking minorities within their own countries, but also minorities with regard to centralised France.

"We have an instant understanding, and that gives us an opening to countries with great beer cultures. Culturally speaking, we can relate to beers from Belgian and Quebec," he explains.

Not all craft beers are good beers, and Laurent Mousson is sure that when the bubble bursts, some - especially those who have simply jumped on the bandwagon to make money - will sell up or go bust.

"But something will remain - people who are more demanding, and who appreciate decent beer," he says.

by Roy Probert

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